HOW THE IRISH GAVE US ST. PATRICK’S DAY…AND HALLOWEEN

What we now know as Halloween began 2,000 years ago as the Celtic festival of Shamhain in Ireland. “Samhain” is the Gaelic word for “summer’s end”. For farmers and rural folk, pagans (the original meaning of pagan was not that of our current understanding, as those who aren’t Christian, but simply those who lived in rural areas, by the rhythms of nature), the holiday marked the beginning of the Celtic New Year. It was the transition from the light part of the year to the darker months of the year.  The day was celebrated starting on sundown on October 31st and then throughout the day on November 1st.

It was beloved- and is still beloved by some- as a time when the veil between this world and the spirit world is thinnest, and departed spirits can return to mingle with the those of the living. 

Celebrants would dress up in costumes, representing the various Celtic deities. Part of the folklore contains a story that Samhain is when the old God dies and the Crone Goddess mourns him deeply for the next six weeks.  The popular Halloween image of an old hag stirring a bubbling brew from a giant black cauldron comes from the Celtic belief that all dead souls return to the Crone Goddess’ cauldron of life, death, and rebirth to await reincarnation.  

The jack-0′-lantern, also has its roots in Celtic legend.  Based on a folklore tale about a forlorn ghost named Jack, jack-o’-lanterns were set outside during Samhain to guide lost souls-and to scare away evil ones.  The difference in the United States is that we use pumpkins.  The Irish originally carved out turnips, but when they brought their tradition to America, turnips were much harder to come by than were pumpkins. In fact, they discovered that pumpkins worked better.

Handing out candy on Halloween to our costumed guests at the doorbell stems from the Celtic tradition of giving food and money to the costumed celebrants, just in case they were the physical incarnations of lost souls.  In addition, when the kids say “trick or treat”, it springs from the custom of doing things to please the spirits or else risk some evil.

Around 700 A.D., when the Christian church began to spread throughout Ireland, the Church renamed the holiday All Saints Day (Nov. 1 precluded by All-Hallows Eve (Oct. 31st) and so it became to be known as Halloween.  Like many other pagan festivals, the Christians adopted Samhain and made it a Christian event. 

While other places in the world celebrate Halloween, it is most widely known and celebrated in the United States, Canada, Ireland, and the U.K.    

So, while the light outside my window is already dimming at 4:30 pm, and my Halloween candy is at the ready for the throngs of trick or treaters to descend upon my doorstep tomorrow evening, I can relish the spiritual connection with my distant ancestors in the “old country” who marked this as a holy and sacred time AND revel with the all the kids who are simply looking forward to a bag full of candy, getting dressed up, and being out after dark on a school night.  As always, the sacred and the everyday live side by side…it’s important to acknowledge both.

PASS ME THE SALT

I came upon this wonderful story from the ancient texts of the Hindus, The Upanishads, that got me thinking about how we far-flung faiths have so many streams crossing each other, while celebrating the unique rivers of thoughts that flow from their own spring:

“A young man called Sretaketu has studied the Vedas for twelve years and was rather full of himself.  His father, Uddalaka, asked him a question which he was unable to answer, and then proceeded to teach him a lesson about the fundamental truth of which he was entirely ignorant.  He told his son to put a piece of salt into water and report back to him the following morning.  When his father asked him to produce the salt, Sretaketu could not find it because it had completely dissolved.  Uddalaka began to question him:

 ‘Would you please sip it at this end?  What is it like?’, He said.  ‘Salt.’

“Sip it in the middle.  What is it like?’ ‘Salt.’

‘Sip it at the far end.  What is it like?’  ‘Salt.

‘Throw it away and then come to me.’ 

He did as he was told but that did not stop the salt from remaining the same. 

His father said to him, ‘My dear child, it is true that you cannot perceive Being here, but it is equally true that it is here.  This first essence-the whole universe has as its Self: That is the Real: That is the Self”: that you are, Sretaketu!'” 

“Thus, even though we cannot see it, Brahman pervades the world and as Atman, is found eternally within each one of us.” (Juan Mascaro’s translation, VI of The Chandogya Upanishad).

  The element salt has many used to illustrate well known spiritual parables in our Judeo-Christian traditions as well.  In biblical times, it was an expensive and important commodity.  It was used to barter, was widely traded, and used not only as a means to flavor food but even more vitally, as a preservative.  Hence, it was widely understood as a metaphor for preserving the purity of the world, as well as being essential to sustain all life . 

The Hebrew Bible (namely Exodus, Ezekiel, and Kings) mentions salt as a purifying agent. While passages in Leviticus (2;13) and Numbers (18:19) present salt as a sign of  God’s covenant .  

Jesus employs the metaphor of salt in the gospels of Matthew (5:15-16), Mark,  and Luke (14:34-35) in the New Testament to spiritually instruct:  “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another (Mark 9:50).”

Salt itself, sodium chloride, is extremely stable and cannot lose its flavor, so that interpreting salt that has lost its flavor has been a topic of some debate.  The most common explanation for this is that salt in the era was quite impure, not only due to extraction methods, but also due to unscrupulous merchants mixing it with other substances. Other scholars say that the writers are aware of salt not being able to lose its flavor and hence being the salt of the earth implies that the audience, once having heard the message, will always remember their value. The words translated lost its flavor translate from the Greek as became foolish, but the Aramaic for both phrases is the same, and so we must use our gifts, lest we lose our gifts, from lack of wisdom, complacency, or impurity.

May you never lose and may you be worth your salt.

A GUEST BLOGGER: THE SINNER’S ALMANAC STOPS BY FOR A VISIT (Part I)

The author of  A Sinner’s Almanac has graciously allowed us to share the following posts.  This voice is an important one for it responds in an articulate and meaningfuly way to the questions that many Americans and Westerners in general ask, “Where are the moderate Muslims in today’s interfaith conversations?” and “What do Muslims think about the way extremism and fanaticism is trying to hijack their faith?” 

The following was posted on October 8, 2010:

Ground Zero Mosque and the Ornament of the World

35. Menocal 2
Tolerance is the Jewel
Upon the Crown of Certainty,
 
And intolerance is
The Unmasking of Doubt
…………………………………….
From the chapter entitled ‘Candy from the Ahad Candy Store’, March 2010
In 2002, Maria Rosa Menocal wrote a book entitled ‘The Ornament of the World’. I only just purchased and read it sometime earlier this year. It is an important book for everyone to read and understand. In light of the Ground Zero Mosque / Cordoba Center / Islamic Centre / Park 51 controversy in New York, one cannot but wonder, how far has the religionist of Islam drifted from the golden age of Cordoba.
I do not know who she is, I have not heard of this writer until I read the book, but her historical documentation of the impact of the Umayads in Spain cannot be overestimated in its importance. The book triggered a deep longing and yearning for those ancient days and a terrible realisation of just how far ‘Muslims’ have strayed from the poetic beauty, sincerity, compassion, love and strength that once illuminated the ancient world. This made me happy and sad.
Those people who are strapping grenades on naive men and women, those people who are tucking a cellphone bomb underneath the bus seat, those people who are called in the media as ‘Islamic Extremists’ or ‘Al Qaeda terrorists’ – They are just bandits. They are weak, doubtful, blind and desperate, and in their despair they hijack and slander the noble names of the Most Excellent Faith of Muhammad Habibullah.
These ‘Muslims’ have become intolerant because they have cast their faith in a vessel of desperation. And for those who knows of the Prophet Muhammad, the Red Rose, the Sublime Humility, oh woe unto those who despairs, for they have raised their banner against the Beloved. Muhammad is anointed as the Mercy to the Worlds, yet they slander him as the Doom of the Worlds. They are worse than even the most wicked amongst non-Muslims, because they cloth their wickedness in the Beautiful Names of Islam.
.
O’ Nation of Muhammad. What is your incessent bickering and complaining about? What is your mad adoption of a million and one conspiracy theories? You act as if you are being oppressed. You act as if the whole world is against you. How easily the names of Muhammad and Allah and Islam spill from your lips. But compared to the Companions, you are rubbish…

MIND POLLUTION

Paranoia, Fear, Prejudice…what are they?  They are very simply, negative EMOTIONAL states.  The rational mind is frozen, led by the nose by the “instinctive run or be eaten” part of our primal brain that our very distant ancestors needed for survival. 

For a moment, for years, or for a lifetime, it can rack the minds of its owner and worst yet, collectively, a whole population (ie., the mob mentality).  The ‘us vs. them’ mindset is the perfect atmosphere for charlatans and ego-centric politicians to whip up supporters, with sound bytes as rallying cries.  I’ve already talked about the tea partiers in another post, so we won’t go there.  But this mind pollution has tentacles.

In Arizona, they’re pulling people over who look Hispanic, just in case they might be illegal immigrants  (which is absolutely nuts as there is an overwhelming population of Hispanic Americans residing in that state).  The same people who are screaming about our taxes are now cheering as we pay law enforcement big bucks to play “Big Brother” to fight against the illegal “aliens”.  And they don’t find this shoveling “you know what” against the tide? Us vs. them will not work.   

Osama Bin Laden must be gleeful.  The politicians and other pundits have gotten us riled about over the Islamic Center in Manhattan.  He planted the seeds of terror and we ourselves are watering them.  He doesn’t even have to tend the horrifically evil garden he planted.

It was our founding fathers’ explicit wish and was thoughtfully constructed in our Constitution, by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Ben Franklin, that our nation would be a place where everyone (Christians, Jews, and Muhammadans (as John Adams refered to them) could have houses of worship and practice as their conscience dictates (never mind community centers).  Us vs. them will not work.

We moderates better be careful.   When we sat by and thought the lunatic temperance movement would pass, we got Prohibition (There would have been no wine for Nun Tuck) . Over the years, paranoia has gotten us McCarthyism, interned Japanese Americans, racism, classicism, sexism and every other ism. 

I’d like to close this frustrated rant with two excerpts from a RATIONAL editorial by John Buchanan in the Christian Century (Sept. 21) :

“In his New York Times column (August 22), Nicholas Kristof wrote about the controversy over the proposal to build an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan: “For much of American history, demagogues have manipulated irrational fears toward people of minority religious beliefs, particularly Catholics and Jews…Today’s crusaders against the Islamic Community Center are promoting a similar paranoid intolerance, and one day we will be ashamed of it.”…”The most tragic dimension of that irrational fear is the way it is exploited by politicians.  I cannot comprehend how otherwise sane and thoughtful people can conclude that an Islamic community center two blocks away from Ground Zero is inappropriate-not to mention dangerous.  It’s not a mosque and it’s not on the site of the World Trade Center twin towers, but even if it were, the right of all Americans to pray and worship how and who and where they choose is one of the most important rights and values of our nation.  It is not negotiable.”    

Who are we REALLY…as a people, as a nation?